|November 20, 2010
We were up early this morning as we were heading out of the city for a tour. The tour today was to Chernobyl and I was really looking forward to it although Elizabeth was a little apprehensive and was a bit worried about radiation levels. She didn’t really have anything to worry about though as I’m sure the tight, Ukrainian government controls wouldn’t allow tourists in without it being safe, would they?!
The drive from Kyiv was just under 2 hours and before we knew it we were at the edge of the 30km exclusion zone. Along the way we watched a video about the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. It was called The Battle of Chernobyl and it was by Thomas Johnson and it showed the immediate aftermath of the disaster and how they fought the initial blast and fire and how they were really slow to deal with the radioactive leaks into the air. The disaster was in April 1986 and at the time the Soviet Union was still in existence and under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. The main issue in the dealing with the disaster was the lack of truth and knowledge which was being shared, even between the plant staff, security advisers on site and the central government agencies. The video included clips from interviews with Gorbachev where he says even he was kept in the dark over the seriousness of the incident for a good few days. It was this incident that truly sparked off the period of glasnost within the Soviet Union. Gorbachev decided that the only way the world would trust him was to obtain all the information and be open and honest about the tragedy. He even employed KGB agents to sit in the meetings with the nuclear specialists and to report back. The disaster itself and the aftermath are interesting enough but when you begin to tie this event in with the theories of glasnost and perestroika which came out of the Soviet Union in the years following and how that changed the entire outlook of Europe you really wonder how much the Chernobyl disaster changed not only the history of the surrounding areas of Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia but also how it changed the entire continent. I’m not saying that the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion caused the independence of all the Soviet States in 1991 but the process for them to even consider independence is certainly linked to glasnost and perestroika.
One of the key points in the video was how the disaster was nearly a lot worse. Due to the misinformation given to the staff dealing with the crisis and the unknowing actions of the first firefighters to reach the scene (most of whom lost their lives), the core reactor could easily have exploded and the reaction and effects would’ve been felt all across Europe. In fact, Gorbachev was quoted as saying that the potential explosion could have actually wiped out the majority of Europe. Given I was only 8 at the time I don’t remember a whole lot about it but I do remember the disaster when it occurred. However, knowing such information now is really terrifying and does make you think twice about whether or not you agree with the generation of power through nuclear sources.
The video also spoke of the men who were brought in to help – miners, soldiers, civilians and nuclear specialists, amongst others. None of these were truly aware of the dangers, not even the specialists as the detection equipment they had couldn’t cope with the high numbers of radiation leaking from the exploded core. Their equipment was showing levels of radiation over 1,000 times less than that which was likely occurring and the true levels were only discovered days later when international teams arrived, led by a certain Hans Blix. Every single person who came to help at Chernobyl around this time was lied to and risked their lives. In all, around 1 million people helped fight the disaster and many of those have been left with serious long term ailments resulting from radiation exposure. These people were known as the “liquidators” of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and have since been declared as Soviet heroes.
The nearby town of Prypiat was severely affected. The town was inhabited by over 40,000 people, many of whom worked at the power plant in various capacities. In the initial aftermath of the disaster the people here were told nothing and it took two days to decide to evacuate all of them. By this point many of them had suffered severe radiation poisoning and had to be taken directly to Moscow for treatment. The government provided 1,000 buses to remove these people from their homes, giving them only 2 hours notice to pack a bag and grab essential items. They were told they should be allowed back within a couple of weeks but the town of Prypiat has never been inhabited since that day.
The video was really excellent and gave an amazing insight into a disaster that everyone will have heard of but that many know little about in detail. The video was made to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the disaster and included some newer details which had been made public just prior to that date. It was certainly an eye-opening documentary and, honestly, a little unnerving watching it just before we got there! I would definitely recommend it if anyone can get hold of it to watch it. It’s amazing what you can learn in such a short space of time. I’d read a fair bit about the disaster before and have read more since and if anything, the video did a better job of summarizing the whole situation without delving into the science bit which has confused me endlessly on some reports I’ve read.
At the 30km exclusion zone security checkpoint we had our passports checked. This exclusion zone was set up a couple of weeks after the explosion and has been in place ever since. Many of the villages within a 30km radius of the power plant were evacuated and many have still not recovered sufficiently to allow repatriation. The next stop was in Chernobyl town itself where the security centres and laboratories are. The people who now live in the town live here for 14 days, then have 14 days away from the area. All the people who live here, around 4,000 of them, work at the power plant and are continuing research, including the building of a new sarcophagus to cover the exploded reactor. The area is still not safe enough for people to live here permanently so that is why they have to live away from the area for half of each month, to allow their bodies to recover and to ensure that they have a clean and healthy water and food source during that time. To give you an idea of how important this is, we met a guy on the tour who works for a charity in England. Each year for one month they house children who live in the affected radioactive areas and provide them with a healthy diet and clean water. This one month in these conditions allows the children to recover enough to keep them alive and allow their bodies to rest from the constant battering of radiation. This man had taken children in for a number of years and felt it was time that he came to see the area for himself, having previously visited some of the affected sites in Byelorussia.
In Chernobyl itself we were given a short talk about the disaster and the area by our guide and were taken for lunch (which I won’t dwell on as it was crap and the drink we were given tasted of cigarettes and it might take away from the experience I’m trying hard enough to put into words). After a short tour of the city, we were driven the final 18km to the power station. We had a couple of brief stops along the way to view monuments and to see the old cooling towers and a large body of water alongside. You had to wonder how safe this water would be to drink and how safe it is even in Kyiv, whose water system is connected via the Dnipro River to this area. Even here the derelict and empty shells of the buildings were only a small insight into what was coming later on. A few people had Geiger counters with them and they weren’t registering much above normal at this point although a few areas on the ground raised some beeps. We also stopped at a memorial which included a number of rescue vehicles. This area used to be a graveyard full of hundreds of vehicles but the authorities have since decided that the level of radioactivity on them was too dangerous and they were buried. The few vehicles that remain are very interesting. Placing his Geiger counter on the top of one tank the count measured little above normal levels. However, when he placed the counter on the area where the treads and engine where the counter went crazy. The levels still weren’t dangerous but they were way above the normal atmospheric levels.
Our next major stop was within view of the power station. The explosion was in reactor number 4 and from where we stood we could clearly see all four reactors, as well as a fifth, unfinished one behind us. The power plant actually continued to operate as recently as 2000 through the first and second reactors but now the plant has been completely closed and decommissioned. It was crazy to be so close to something so potentially dangerous. You could clearly see the sarcophagus which was built over the 4th reactor in 1986 and you could, worryingly, see how rusted and weathered it looks, almost waiting just to collapse. The initial design was supposed to last 30 years and there are plans in place to build a new sarcophagus which will fit over the old one, completely sealing the area. However, this project is running way over time and they governments are struggling to raise the $1bn required to build it. Surely if Ireland can get a hand out from the EU for helping out a load of bankers then they could lend some money to help build something that could have an effect on the whole of Europe. But of course, bureaucrats and politicians don’t think sensibly!
The sight of this power plant, which doesn’t seem that big close up, was both amazing and eerie. It looked harmless, just a chunk of metal and concrete sticking out of the landscape like any other power station would but you of course know that everything isn’t as it should be. The Geiger counters here were a little higher but still nothing very shocking but the little beeps as the count increased as we got closer really, truly highlighted the invisible enemy here. It was quite a stark contrast for me compared to some of the other things we’ve seen as we’ve been travelling as all the bad things we’ve seen have all been a result of direct human actions (rather than human error) and the devastation and after-effects have been so much more tangible from the A-bomb Dome in Hiroshima to the shrines in Rwanda and Cambodia and the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam. The enemy here is an invisible one and although millions have suffered as a consequence of this disaster, all we were faced with was an almost desolate, uninhabited area with a power station at the centre. It was very, very creepy.
After the stop to view the power station we drove on and visited the Red Forest. This area is right next to the power station and covers a lot of the ten square kilometers around it as well. Due to the winds after the explosion, a lot of radioactive dust was scattered around the area and the trees turned a ginger-brown colour as they died, giving the forest its current name. These trees have since been bulldozed and buried and new saplings have been planted and are thriving, despite the high radiation levels in the area. The guide wouldn’t allow us to get out of the bus here but he walked outside and immediately the Geiger counter beeped like crazy. In many areas the readings had been around 0.12 but here the readings were well over 30! This is considered one of the most contaminated areas of the entire world and most of the pollution is held in the soil, making it almost a miracle that not only have new trees grown but that also many wild animals have been spotted in the area. Given they are probably eating radioactive plants they are as lucky to be alive as the plants themselves.
We then had the stop which was closest to the power station. Alongside reactor #4 there is a memorial and from here you were probably less than 100m away from the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. You could really see the aging sarcophagus from here but I felt surprisingly more comfortable here than at other places along the way. I think seeing the Geiger counter go crazy in the Red Forest and barely make a beep here was very much a relief! There was still a higher count than normal and I was quickly told to not stand on the grass as it is in the soil where the radiation counts are still at their highest. Needless to say, I moved very swiftly!
Our next and final stop was the town of Prypiat. This town was home to around 40,000 people and now there are none. The town had a really eerie feeling to it and although there were plenty of signs of life around it was impossible not to notice that there actually wasn’t any. As we drove into the main town the large tower blocks which used to serve as homes were now empty carcasses, gutted and weathered over time. We stopped in the main square and here we were surrounded by buildings, with some government buildings and a restaurant to our left, a hotel to our right and a recreation centre straight ahead. I’m not sure I am good enough with words to fully describe the feelings I had being here or whether I have the vocabulary to adequately describe what I saw. I’m not even sure the pictures do it any more justice. It was an almost sinister feeling and for the first time ever on a tour I was glad we weren’t alone. I think spending time here alone would be amazingly rewarding in what you could discover but equally I think I’d be terrified walking around here on my own. It is so hard to describe why but there is just that feeling. There isn’t anyone here to mug you or kill you. There isn’t anything major stopping you from spending a night or two here and emerging safely. You just wouldn’t want to.
We headed into the recreation centre and the scene inside was every bit as heart-breaking and soul-destroying as that witnessed outside. The deflated beach balls, the smashed windows, the discarded boxing gloves, the peeling paintwork, the faded murals and the old, wrinkled, worn books with the damp, curled-up edges were all signs of previous life but more strikingly they were signs of a life which hasn’t breathed and lived here for a while. Twenty-four years now, in fact. The cinema looked to be almost burnt out and maybe it had been. There has obviously been plenty of human intervention in the destruction of Prypiat as nuclear particles in the air don’t smash windows and break floorboards and perhaps the cinema interior was the result of a little over-exuberance from previous visitors.
From the recreation centre we headed to the fairground, which was only built in 1986 and was due to open that summer but never quite made it. The Ferris wheel and bumper cars are all still there, rusting away, decaying with age but the whole scene just reminds you of a horror movie. You wouldn’t have been surprised if a load of children had jumped out of the bushes and equally if tumbleweed had blown across that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow either. The setting was just surreal. I walked through a puddle to take a picture of a stray bumper car steering wheel and just as I moved on somewhere else a guy behind me held his Geiger counter over the puddle and moss I’d just stepped on. The quick beeping noise made me think twice about where I walked after that! We headed into the swimming pool and then the school after that and the scene from the recreation centre was repeated. The swimming pool, empty of water but swimming with garbage and dirt, looked every bit as sad and lonely as the empty hall next to it, where basketball backboards were even missing the hoops. But it was in the school where some of the most memorable images came from.
Here we were greeted by classroom after classroom and almost all of them still had drawings and pictures on the wall and there were still many desks and chairs, broken, along each corridor. There were gas masks everywhere, a sign of preparation for an attack against the Soviets by a Western power which were ultimately utilized to try to cope with something much more extreme, much more dangerous and much closer to home. The leftover remnants were everywhere from rotting textbooks to empty plates and bowls in the school canteen along with broken toys and Soviet propaganda. It was a true throwback to another era and a truly eclectic mix of relics.
All that was left after that was a walk back to the minibus and a quick drive back to Chernobyl town, with another quick drive around reactor #4 and its crumbling protective layer. Back at the headquarters we were required to stand on a machine to check our levels of radioactivity and whilst everyone thought this was rather amusing it can’t have been any major risk as not a single person from the facility was actually monitoring whether everyone stood on the machine. We did have to go through the entire rigmarole again at the 30km checkpoint but again nobody seemed to be taking much notice so I doubt anything much could go wrong. Or no-one gave a shit!
The drive back flew by as I spent most of it asleep and so did Elizabeth. It had been a really long but exhilarating day and it is certainly one of those experiences you don’t get very often. As one guy on the tour pointed out you just don’t know if these tours will continue forever and if they do there is no guarantee what further state of dilapidation the buildings might be in. We were lucky to be able to go in some of them as you could clearly see the floorboards moving and cracking beneath your feet. Much more weathering and exposure to the elements and some of these buildings will be off limits.
Back at the hostel we pretty much collapsed. We planned to go to the little bar again for dinner but when we got there it was so busy there were no tables free for us. In fact, even spots at the bar had been reserved for people so we couldn’t even sit there. We ended up buying some noodles at the supermarket and had that along with leftover pizza from last night, a cherry strudel and a beer. Cheap and cheerful!